"Forgive me," he managed, his voice a rough crack against the hush of the chamber.
She regarded him uncertainly, as if she did not understand.
"I--I didn't know," he continued, feeling helpless and ashamed. "I didn't understand the danger you were in."
She said nothing. But her silence was condemning.
"Even if I had," he admitted, despising himself as he wrestled with his confession, "there was nothing I could do. I had no army to lead to your rescue. No arsenal of weapons and shields and horses." He gestured in disgust at himself as he added, "Not even a sound body with which to fight."
Her gray eyes grew shadowed. She stayed there watching him, her small form rigid, as if she found his pathetic excuses cowardly.
And they were.
"You are right, milady," he admitted finally, his voice a raw whisper. "I should have come."
The guilt of it was more than he could endure. Sick with remorse, he closed his eyes, blocking out the terrible bloodstained sight of her. He wished he could exchange his life for hers. She, at least, had had a life worth living, with people who had loved and needed her. Instead she had burned, condemning him to carry the excruciating burden of yet another death upon his conscience.
He did not think he could bear it.
"Ariella," he whispered, the name haunting and bittersweet, "I am so goddamn sorry."
Ariella stared at him in stunned surprise. She had never seen MacFane like this. Often he appeared tormented, but she had judged it a selfish torment, with roots that drank deep of self-pity. The man standing before her was not the MacFane who got drunk and bitterly wondered if he had really performed the reputed feats of the Black Wolf. This man was intoxicated, yes, but not self-pitying. Instead he was consumed by the single thought that he was responsible for a woman's death. And the thought of it rendered him so guilt ridden, he could not bring himself even to look at her spirit.
She had every reason to despise him. He had failed her, her father, her people. Yet in this solemn, silent moment she could not hate him. She was far too shaken by the depths of his suffering.
He could not stay there much longer, she realized, or he would soon start to wonder why her spirit didn't fade into the air. She poured him a goblet of wine, liberally dosed with sleeping powder.
"Drink, MacFane," she ordered, holding the goblet out to him. "All of it."
He opened his eyes and looked at her. If he was surprised by the fact that an apparition could speak, he made no comment on it. Instead he reached for the goblet. His fingers brushed hers as he took hold of it, a flash of warmth against her cool skin. Keeping his blue gaze locked upon her, he tilted his head and obediently drained the glass. Then he wiped his mouth against the back of his hand and carefully placed the goblet on the table.
"Do not torment yourself over my death," she murmured quietly. "It is done."
He shook his head. He did not deserve absolution.
"You died a hideous death because of me. You watched your father die, saw your fellow clansmen cut to pieces as they fought to protect their home. All the while clinging to the hope that maybe I would come. But, Christ," he swore, suddenly angry, "couldn't you have waited a while longer? If you had but agreed to wed this warrior, then you would have lived. You could have sent word to me again. I would have found some way to help."
"I could not wed him," Ariella replied. "I could not make him laird of my people. Their suffering would have been--unimaginable."
"Eve cruel, oppressive lairds can be killed," Malcolm argued. "They are not invincible."
With the sword he would have been. As my father would have been, had he only thought to keep it close. She knew the weapon alone could not have saved her clan. But at least her father would not have fallen beneath the blade of Roderic's sword.
"I could not wed him," she repeated stonily. Terrible memories began to unfurl, images of the suffering she had witnessed that day. "After all he had done, I would rather die than have him touch me." She wrapped her arms around herself, trying to shield herself from the horrors eddying through her mind.
That he could understand. "Of course," he said, feeling brutish and stupid for even suggesting it. He moved closer. "He had no right to touch you."
He reached out and unthinkingly laid his hand against her cheek, forgetting she was a ghost and would have no substance. To his surprise she was decidedly solid beneath his touch. Solid, yet small and delicate. And cool, he mused, feeling her tremble slightly. Despite the fact that she stood before the hot flames of the fire, which were warm upon his skin. She did not move away from his touch, nor did she lean into it. Instead she remained utterly still, staring at him, her eyes silvery in the amber wash of firelight. Desire poured through him, clouding his thoughts. This was the woman who might have been his. The woman who had been offered as his wife, if only he had been man enough to come and protect her. The woman who would have lain beside him at night, wrapped in his arms, her cheek a scrap of pale silk against his aching chest. Overwhelmed with loss, he trailed his fingers along the fragile line of her jaw, across her small chin, down the creamy column of her throat. The rapid beat of a pulse fluttered against his fingertips, faint as the whisper of a moth's wings. In his mind he knew she dead. Yet to him she was as filled with life as his own flesh, or the ripple of flames behind her, or the air gusting softly through the window.
"Ariella," he murmured, his voice rough with need. He sank his fingers deep into the coppery silk of her hair and leaned closer, inhaling the scent of soap and heather. Her eyes were shimmering with uncertainty, but she did not retreat. And in that moment she somehow ceased to be a ghost, or a mere trick of his imagination. His mind reeling with wine and desire, he wrapped his arms around her.
And then, accepting the fact that he had gone absolutely insane, he bent his head low and took her lips in his.
Ariella held her breath, so startled was she by the feel of Malcolm's mouth pressed warm and hard against hers. She knew she should push him away. He had no right to touch her so, no right to pull her against the solid heat of his body, no right to hold her fast against him as his mouth invaded hers with a terrible, frightening desperation. But somehow she could not bring herself to resist, to raise her arms and shove against his chest and step away. A strange sensation began to grow within her, slowly at first, a tiny ember glowing deep in the pit of her stomach. She tried to force it from her mind as Malcolm's hands began to possessively stroke her back, her shoulders, her waist, her hips, exploring the curves and valleys of her as if he could not quite believe she was real, and needed to see for himself. His kiss grew bolder and more demanding, suckling her lips, then tasting her with his tongue, until she gasped in surprise at the dark pleasure flooding through her. This enabled him to kiss her deeply, thoroughly, stripping away the last vestiges of her resistance. The ember in her stomach burst into flame. Unable to restrain herself, she reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck. His immense height forced her to raise herself on her toes, causing her to lean against the hard breadth of his body. He tightened his embrace, wrapping her in his strength and power and need, touching her and tasting her and holding her until she was dizzy from it, until she felt as if she were coming to life for the first time, that everything before this moment had been but a shadow of the sensations pouring through her as she kissed the man who had been destined to be her husband.
The man who had failed to come when she needed him, leaving her clan to suffer.
Shame pierced her senses. In that same instant Malcolm squeezed her injured arm, causing her to cry out. He instantly released his hold and drew back.
"Did I hurt you?" he demanded, astonished by the possibility.
"No," she murmured, shaking her head. "It was nothing."
His gaze was bleary with the effects of drink and the sleeping herb. Still, he was lucid enough to find her discomfort peculiar. Frowning, he reached out and jerked her gown off her shoulder, revealing the white linen of her bandage. He stared at it a moment, mystified.
And then his eyes narrowed.
"What the hell is this?" he growled thickly.
Her mind racing, she searched for some plausible explanation.
Before one came to her, he sighed, as if the matter no longer interested him.
Then his eyes closed, and he collapsed heavily onto the floor in a deep, drugged sleep.